Novelist Richard Powers Will Explore Intersection of Science and Intellect
October 15, 2001
Novelist Richard Powers, lauded as "today's brainiest young star of fiction," will make two public appearances at Davidson College on Wednesday, October 24. Powers' rare ability to successfully juggle technology, art, history, and politics in his writing has taken him to the top of the best-seller lists.
He will join three Davidson faculty members to discuss "The Intersections of Science with Other Disciplines" at 4:30 p.m. in the Smith 900 Room of the College Union. Wednesday evening at 8 p.m. in Love Auditorium of Chambers Building he will present the college's Reynolds Lecture, entitled "The Gauges of Knowledge." Both events are open to the public, and there is no admission charge.
Powers, a professor of English at the University of Illinois, has written seven novels. His first, Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, was published in 1985 and won the Richard and Hinda Rosenthal Foundation Award for best American fiction, and received a special citation from the PEN/Hemingway Foundation. Gain was awarded the James Fennimore Cooper Prize from the American Society of Historians. His latest work, Plowing the Dark, received the Vursell Prize from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.
Powers is also a Lannan Literary Fellow, and a "genius grant" recipient from the MacArthur Foundation. His essays have appeared in Harpers, The Yale Review, The New Yorker, and the New York Times.
The symposium on "The Intersections of Science With Other Disciplines" will include Davidson faculty members Karen Hales of the biology department, Mauro Botelho of the music department, and Gregory Snyder of the religion department.
Snyder noted that Powers in his novels writes about many of the issues that face students in Snyder's current course in "Myths and Theories of Origins." Snyders students are studying the origins of the universe from points of view of both religion and science, reading everything from the Bible to medieval Jewish myths, to Galileo and the Big Bang theory.
Snyder noted, "It's interesting how scientists who work on it, like Stephen Hawking, often end up getting involved in 'God talk.' Likewise, people who want to make religious arguments about origins often back up their arguments with scientific explanations. People often spill over into the other approach at the end of the day when they've reached the limits of their own understanding of the issue."
Powers writes stories of "lonesome Rangers," individuals who lose their way, and long to find the road back home. Often their soul searching is caused by the soul-wrenching effects of modern science. In 1978, while studying for his master's degree in English, Powers taught himself to program computers.
He later left graduate school and was employed as a technical writer and a computer coder. All his novels have been characterized by insightful glimpses into scientific realms. Galatea 2.2 concerns artificial intelligence, The Gold Bug Variations concerns genetic code, and Plowing the Dark delves into virtual reality.
He told one interviewer, "I think that if the novel's task is to describe where we find ourselves and how we live now, the novelist must take a good, hard look at the most central facts of contemporary life--technology and science."
Powers published his first novel, Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, in 1985 while working in Boston as a freelance computer programmer. The idea for the book came to him when he was visiting a museum exhibition of German photography, and saw a picture called "Young Westerwald Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, 1914." In Powers' interpretation of the scene, the young farmers traverse the history of the Netherlands and the history of photography before arriving at World War I.
He published Prisoner's Dilemma in 1988. His next novel, Gold Bug Variations (1991) was described in the New York Review of Books as "perhaps the most daunting American novel since Moby Dick, a Grand Canyon of a detective story deep enough to swallow Pynchon's Rainbow..." It concerns a brilliant scientist on the verge of cracking the genetic code who falls in love and walks away from his laboratory. Three decades later, a young couple determines to find out the secret of what happened to the scientist.
In typical Powers fashion, the story includes insights into the world of technology, art, literature, politics, and history. His genius lies in his ability to connect these disparate worlds. One reviewer wrote, "By awesome metaphor, Powers suggests that in Bach's polyphony, as in the double helix, as in kabbala, variations on just four notes, four nucleotides, and the four letters in the name of God spell out everything we need to know about 'that string of base-pairs coding for all inheritance, desire, ambition, the naming need itself--first love, forgiveness, frailty.'"
Powers published Operation Wandering Soul in 1993, a grim novel that concerns abused and neglected children. Galatea 2.2, published in 1995, is the most popular of Powers' novels, perhaps because it best caputures his ability to blend hard science with lofty abstraction. Its main character, who is also named Richard Powers, is hesitantly coaxed into creating software capable of passing an oral exam in English literature. The software becomes a sentient machine named Helen, who begins posing questions about her own existence that lead the reader to similarly ponder the human condition.
His 1998 novel, Gain, concerns a legal corporation whose far-reaching enterprises lead the reader to question the profit motive.
The New York Review of Books called Plowing the Dark a remarkable novel, labeling it "the seventh astonishment in 15 years from Powers." True again to a writing style described as "contrapuntal, with a double helix," Plowing the Dark evolves in two distinct and seemingly unrelated environments.
On the one hand, Taimur Martin spends five years in captivity as a hostage of the Shi'ite Muslims in Beirut. He struggles throughout his bleak imprisonment to find within his soul "the look of thought," a Zen core that will help dissolve the walls around him. As Martin struggles with his fate, another character named Adie Klarpol becomes involved with a group of young corporate "techies" who are totally devoted to construction of virtual reality computer worlds. Powers finally brings these two worlds--one of terror and one of make-believe--together via the Gulf War.
In the end, Martin learns from his captivity a somber lesson about life. "There is a truth only solitude reveals. An insight that action destroys, one scattered by the slightest worldly affair: the fact of our abandonment here, in a far corner of sketched space."
As one reviewer wrote, "Everybody else just talks about alienation, estrangement, and the unbearable lightness of being. Powers actually does something about them. ... He will use everything we know from our higher brain functions about mind and body and art and longing, to find patterns and to close distances."
Powers asserts that his writing, and all art, are a meaningful celebration of the chance of our existence. He told one interviewer, "Art is a way of saying what it means to be alive, and the most salient feature of existence is the unthinkable odds against it. For every way that there is of being here, there are an infinity of ways of not being here. Historical accident snuffs out whole universes with every clock tick. Statistics declare us ridiculous. Thermodynamics prohibits us. Life, by any reasonable measure, is impossible, and my life--this, here, now--infinitely more so. Art is a way of saying, in the face of all that impossibility, just how worth celebrating it is to be able to say anything at all."
Follow these links for more on Richard Powers:
Davidson is a highly selective independent liberal arts college for 1,600 students. Since its establishment in 1837, the college has graduated 23 Rhodes Scholars and is ranked in the top ten liberal arts colleges in the country by U.S. News and World Report magazine. Davidson is currently engaged in "Let Learning Be Cherished," a $250 million campaign in support of student financial assistance, academic resources, and community life.